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Drama in the Classroom

Some have suggested that drama teaches us about life in a way that is clearer and more vivid that we normally live it. It tends to sort out complex problems in human lives, not by simplification, but through selection. Drama can make stories and ideas come alive, and, because of its vital and creative nature, it is often a significant educational technique.

When we are thinking about the educational context of church and Sunday School, we are thinking almost exclusively about “religious drama” and more specifically “Christian drama.” Kaye Baxter defines religious drama as dealing with significant and vital themes of life. It “presents characters in action—in situations where faith and belief are tested” (Contemporary Theater and the Christian Faith, Abingdon, Nashville, Tenn.).

Remember we are thinking here about effective methods for the communication of an absolute message. One must not be swayed by the fallacious argument of guilt by association and thereby conclude that because drama and theater have been improperly used to convey error and sin, the method is corrupt and ought to be avoided. Drama as a technique is amoral; it has no inherent characteristics of good or evil in itself. How we use it makes the difference.

The Old Testament provides ample precedent for this kind of teaching. Consider the prophet Ezekiel designing a model of the city of Jerusalem and then laying siege to it at the command of Jehovah. Or the behavior of Elijah on Mount Carmel as recorded in I Kings 18. It was not necessary to call for all those extra buckets of water or to taunt the prophets of Baal about the vacation patterns of their gods. But all of this added to the climactic moment when Elijah drove home the point of the exclusive power of the God of the Bible. Dramatic demonstrations on the part of the prophets were a basic format of instruction during those days.

We should not confuse drama with role playing, which as presented in an earlier chapter, can be utilized in less than a half hour period with virtually no preparation on the part of the participants. Such is rarely the case with drama. Here we are talking about a method we might employ only once or twice a year. The long rehearsals, costuming, stage layout, and other preparations tend to make us think that drama as a teaching method is really “not worth it.” But we should not be too hasty to condemn any teaching methodology—at least until we have tried it. The impact which effective drama can have on the lives of the participants as well as the audience may be well worth the time invested.

Values in the Use of Drama

Drama can be very effective in pinpointing solutions to problems which people face in real life. Emotional involvement is a common experience when one is viewing an effective play. He may see himself reflected in one of the characters and recognize that the same solutions explored in the play are applicable to his own life and problems.

Drama can also be used to enhance worship experiences. James Warren reminds us, “Drama has always been closely related to the worship of the church. For example, interpretive reading, chorus speech, artful pageantry, dramatic movement, tasteful decor, and imaginative lighting are but a few techniques that can bring a congregation into a mood of worship. Drama is not only to be found in these recognizable techniques, but it can be discovered as an impetus in liturgical worship (i.e. when a service of worship steadily progresses toward movements of adoration and commitment)” (“Art in the Church,” Religious Education, Marvin J. Taylor, ed., Abingdon, Nashville, Tenn.).

I shall never forget an experience I had at a Good Friday service some years ago. Instead of the usual choral selections and sermons, the church utilized a film on the Crucifixion. The impact of that drama upon my life at that point was far more significant than many other services attended in previous years.

Another helpful feature of drama is its ability to stimulate thought on significant issues. In this way, drama could be used as a catalyst to group discussion. Used in such a manner, we would probably avoid many of the problems of costuming and rehearsal since we would want such a drama to be short enough in production that effective use of discussion time could immediately follow its presentation.

For example, a Junior High class studying Paul’s missionary journeys in the Book of Acts might prepare a dramatic presentation of the experience of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail. Two or three rehearsals with very limited use of costuming ought to yield a profitable presentation of 15 or 20 minutes length which could then be followed by total group discussion.

Drama can help reveal insights into the character and personality of persons portrayed in the play. Think of the impact of a carefully planned and executed play probing the attitudes of Job during his time of suffering.

Drama can aid the church in evangelism. Non-Christian parents who might never come to a regular service of the church might be enthusiastically responsive to an invitation asking them to come and see a play in which one or more of their children is acting. The impact of the message of the play could be aimed at a clear presentation of the Gospel. The wide acceptance of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Mm ministry is sufficient justification for the role of drama in evangelism.

If the church ever uses television on a large scale, it may very well discover (as some major denominations have already shown us in their television work) that Christian drama is a more effective technique in the communication of the Gospel through television than more traditional approaches.

One further point should be made with respect to the use of creative drama with children. Eleanor Morrison and Virgil Foster devote a chapter to this and point out how drama can be effective even without long rehearsals and expensive costuming. “Creative drama is a favorite activity of children because they make up their own dramatization. The material may be original or it may be based on a story that the group is studying. There is little or no scenery, costuming, or properties. The dialogue, because it grows out of immediate interaction, varies with each repetition. Emphasis is on free and spontaneous participation by as many children as possible rather than on acting excellence. The cast may be changed each time that a scene is played, for all the children should be involved” (Creative Teaching in the Church, mentioned earlier).

Problems in Using Drama

In attempting to make a case for using drama, I have already mentioned most of the potential problems. Surely our hesitancy in using the method is based on the negative associations we have concerning theater in general. Add to that the horrifying prospect of weeks or months of rehearsals, accompanied by the expense of costuming and staging, and the combination is enough to drive any teacher back to the lecture method!

One of my students, writing a paper on the use of drama, suggested a pattern for introducing drama as a teaching technique in the church. He listed eight steps which should be taken as a group can handle them.

1. Lecture—the present status of many classes

2. Discussion—a first step into involvement procedures

3. Discussion of how a character thinks, or how a person should react to what was discussed

4. Discussion of religious plays and how they may help explain situations in the Christian life

5. Role playing—the dimension at which participants take on a certain characteristic and act it out with others

6. Improvisations—short original sketches portraying some idea or mimicking some personage

7. Short scenes—introduce scripts and maybe begin to think in terms of costuming

8. One-act plays—fully scripted and with rehearsals before the drama is played to an audience

The result of these eight steps would culminate in full length plays and the use of drama as a regular medium in the church’s education program.

Principles for the Effective Use of Drama

Be patient with participants who have not had experience; patient with adults in the church who are a bit leery of the method; patient in seeing the results of drama as a teaching technique.

If you anticipate using drama outside your own classroom or group, check with all necessary authorities in the church to make sure you have full clearance for developing the play.

Exercise great care in the choice of the play. Make sure it is not too difficult for the age group and that its essential message conveys precisely what you intend to achieve in meeting the objectives of the teaching situation.

Choose a director who can competently guide the development of the play. If you are to be the director yourself, study some helpful resource books to enhance the effectiveness of your leadership. Here are a few suggestions:

Drama In The Church, Fred Eastman, Samuel French Inc., New York, N.Y.

Religious DramaIts Means and Ends, Harold Ehrensberger, Abingdon, Nashville, Tenn.

Stage Scenery and Lighting: A Handbook for Nonprofessionals, Samuel Selden and Hulton D. Sallman, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, N.Y.

Related Topics: Teaching the Bible